My grandparents could have been customs officials in Shanghai, visiting workers from Norway in a profession that was useful for both the dying empire and the growth of capitalism. Or they could have been immigrants from Norway to USA's northern west coast - to Washington or Oregon. They might have earned their living by working in the timber industry, exploiting the resources of the ancient, overgrown conifer forests.1
It is in fact possible that my grandparents could have positioned Norway as a link between Shanghai and Oregon. And if this had been the case, it might have been an important link - at least for those involved.
Another scenario might have been like this: A farmer's son from the country - let's say northern Gudbrandsdalen - has recently moved to the nearest town of Lillehammer. Here he becomes acquainted with a classmate whose uncle is a customs official in Shanghai, and another whose aunt lives in Astoria, Oregon. These three exchange stories. The stories are collections of loose ends, bits and bobs of other collections and these collections are productive. They are accumulations of attitude, yearning knowledge and desire. These products would have made a Lillehammer Assemblage, a new, factual and productive accumulation which was not logically constructed. It could not have been deduced from all the world's knowledge about the situation and it's historical content, or from any other information such as physics, chemistry, genetics or other sciences.
There is a two-sided story behind this exhibition. As a "Maoist" in Norway at the beginning of the 1970's, I learned many stories about China and China's ancient and more recent history. I learned about Confucius, Lao Tse and symbolically weighty episodes from the various empires, but specially the history of China after 1919. This version of China's history gave me a code which I could use to understand Shanghai. But I never visited Shanghai or China and had no contact with anyone from there until 2001. This meeting threw up the idea that whatever happens in Shanghai happens at the same time (even if it is unsynchronised and incompatible) as the rest of the world. A number of things put me on the track of this idea: an impression of speed and tempo, science fiction, the simultaneous occurrence of several long, large format time perspectives, topped by a wave of cosmopolitical activity - literally and architecturally.
But Shanghai is not a "Shanghai-phenomenon". The term assemblage has been important for the development of my approach - Shanghai as an assemblage, a factual, productive accumulation that is not logically constructed and cannot be deduced from assumptions and presuppositions.
The exhibition Shanghai Assemblage is based upon a belief that there is a particularly strong aspect to the expressions emanating from Shanghai. In a surprising way, these expressions link the future and the past, the inner and the outer. Has anyone participated in anything like this before? Or put another way: Does one find a key to what is happening in Shanghai by joining together the lines that make up a mesh of associations – a patchwork quilt - that cover such disparate phenomena as Mao Zedong's Long March, Paris in the 1930's, New York in the 1950's, Post-socialism in the Baltic states, or the globalization of the 1990's - just to mention a few of the bigger patches? Why does this particular patchwork quilt have such a surprising tonal colour? Would it be meaningful to talk about a productive tonal colour?
The work delivered to the exhibition has mostly been created by artists who are expressing the growth of the new. The relationship each artist has with Shanghai has no more importance than this. In fact some of the artists have very tentative links with the city - their relationship is no closer than that of a tourist.
All the work was produced during a particular time period - Shanghai Assemblage 2000 - 2004. With Shanghai as the background, enough works were made during this period employing sharply formulated humour and the challenge of sincerity, to present an assemblage. It seems to me that the temperature and the expression we find in this exhibition is quite different from the kind of work we normally associate with "Chinese art" from the 1990's.
The exhibition's full title is Light as fuck! Shanghai Assemblage 2000 - 2004. Light as fuck is the title of an artwork from 2003 by Yang Zhenzhong. At first sight, it seems that the artist is "showing his finger" to the entire process of change that is taking place. But the work might also be interpreted in another way. The weight of change, as long as it is and is perceived as being an exterior phenomenon - in this case buildings - is nothing! This is far from being an assertion that is specific to Shanghai - there are several places on the globe where people search to create formulations (in the widest sense) that connect emotions, thoughts, attitudes and impressions, social projects and objects. The ability art has to formulate connections between the exterior and the interior in a sensual manner is a global epistemological factor. Light as fuck! Shanghai Assemblage 2000 -2004 is based upon a conviction that the lightness of the isolated exterior - or the isolated interior is a source of interesting, humorous material, and that the successful experiments the artists have done to formulate connections are exciting, sincere and disturbing.
The physical and mental landscape of the exhibition
The exhibition consists of a number of individual works, which employ photography, objects, performance, film, video, interactive video, sound, and Internet as the dominant techniques. The idea of an assemblage came from these individual works. They can be viewed as if each individual piece is illuminated, or thrown into relief by the various patches that constitute this special accumulation - Shanghai Assemblage - or as individual pieces that radiate something of this strangeness, each in their own way with different compositions and different strengths.
This does not mean that the individual pieces can be reduced - only relating to each other, or to a common denominator. As individual pieces, they are illuminating. As events that are introduced, they may tolerate a different approach than to be reduced to merely verifying ideas about changes in place and/or identity-changes.
The exhibition is viewed and experienced in the exhibition halls, it's physical landscape. The exhibition is fundamentally organised by grouping the individual works into areas or zones. This reduces the immediate chaos created by over sixty very different individual pieces, and offers a platform for developing contact with the work. Each zone has a particular temperature or rhythm which distinguishes it from the neighbouring zone. These characteristics refer to factors that link the work together mentally within each zone or area. This introduction to the exhibition will concern itself with each zone and the connections each embodies. I characterize each zone as a mental landscape, and have been searching for a refrain in this rhythmic diversity. The aim is that these zones will have out-played their role (as something other than temporary intellectual and emotional aids) by the time the text or the exhibition has been experienced, viewed and digested.
A horizon, or horizons are not easy to spy when you are in a vertically challenging environment - like a metropolis for example - that hems one in on every side. But it, or they, are there somewhere. Horizons can be found by keeping on the move, and constructing one's own image of the phenomenon by mentally weaving together the quick glimpses afforded. Hopefully, this strategy is also relevant to an exhibition that is rich in distinctive differences. A horizon is both concrete and unattainable. In contrast to an enclosed unit, the horizon is a paradox - seductive and calming at the same time.
Hinting at, or demonstrating possible horizons is one of the enjoyable and challenging aim of the exhibition and the text that accompanies it.
922 Rrice Corns, Anti-terrorism, It is still there, 6th. March.
In 922 grains of rice, Yang Zhenzhong shows us a hen and a cockerel "consuming and counting" a pile of rice grains. The process is carefully documented in great detail, with both voices and counting apparatus as part of the image. This is a fairly simple yet duplicitous satire, in which a multitude of units are individualized (numbered) whilst being consumed - control over the process of nourishment is perfected. The so-called peasant-paintings from the Cultural Revolution produced a whole range of farming scenes portraying villages overflowing with a profusion of good things to eat - including chickens and cockerels.
Control and discipline are the main focus of Xu Zhen's performance 6th March. There is a seemingly paradoxical connection between these two phenomena - those who control are bound by a stricter discipline than those who are being controlled. This in turn colours the relationship between the artist and his public: "6th of March is my birthday, the whole performance is a birthday celebration at which the public are guests and the 100 asylum inhabitants are me."
The fact that discipline is connected to fear is one of the themes of Hu Jie Ming's interactive video It is still there. The main characters are a digitally drawn red dog and each member of the public. Although he takes the same light-hearted approach that characterizes the other works in this zone, he nevertheless demonstrates that courage belongs to the same "case history".
The myth about flexibility being a characteristic of the discharge of power is one of the themes explored by Chen Shaoxiong in Anti-terrorism. A veritable mass of 11th September terror is rebuffed with solidity and flexibility by the skylines of Shanghai and Guangzhou.
These are works that are complete organisms; they are either funny, satirical or are parodies with punch lines. They not only revel in the narrative content matter - much pleasure has also been invested in the technological and wondrous aspects of the work. They are like decorated Christmas trees in the woods, small happenings, strangely illuminated.
The Long March - A Walking Visual Display
The Long March is an art project of huge dimensions - an original mixture of art propaganda, social activism, institution-building and all types of art practice from the last 50 years. The Long March consists of happenings, performance, video and film, land art, interactive events, mixtures of high and low culture, tradition and innovation, texts, social interventions, work in progress, etc., etc.
This Long March has two curators, Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie. The project title has been taken from the well-known myth about the birth of "the New China" - the legendary retreat of the Red Army during 1934-35. This retreat is regarded as the forward march of modernity, especially for the large landmass lying inland from the coastal belt of eastern Asia. A number of artists, curators, art critics and art historians are participating in this new Long March, which follows the route of their historical predecessors - this time with contemporary visual art as the conceptual meeting place. Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie describe the relationship between the red Army and Shanghai in the following terms:
Defeated, the Communists were forced to go underground in foreign controlled Shanghai- It was at this time that Mao, unsatisfied with the urban insurrection policy guided by the Comintern's representatives in the Communist headquarters in Shanghai began to organize peasant revolutions in the mountains.2.
In the light of this perspective, Shanghai becomes a modern, developed centre, incapable of carrying out the utopian dreams - or some of them - that modern structures might create the possibility of achieving.
In many ways, this perception is the basis for the new Long March which began in 2002, and by the spring of 2004, will have covered 2/3 of the projected journey.
Lu Jie has put together a presentation of the project. It consists of both documentation and artwork. This will be a relatively dense and diverse zone - a thicket or area of undergrowth in which the relationship to the earth, to "territory" is noticeably the focus. It is formally articulated through an orientation towards the floor. In this instance, the territory is the route of the Long March and the places along its trajectory. Each place has it's own topography, architecture, zoology (as the instigators call it) and each place employs local codes, yet is at the same time "overcoded" by the Red Army's Long March and the content matter and results of it.
The Long March - A Walking Visual Display can be looked upon as an ambitious decoding project, an attempt to show - and thereby understand - the already existing codes and overcodes that pervade all social life, including art. Humour, with the absence of irony, and a matter-of-fact approach to such an emotionally loaded theme signals the opposite of a distant examination of this issue. It requires a challenging, very vulnerable presence.
The Happiest Winter, Nowhere, Deaf Land, Blind Sweet,Actor's Lines,"Flutter, Flutter … Jasmine, Jasmine", I will Die
In Liang Yue's video films The Happiest Winter, Nowhere, Deaf Land and Blind Sweet, waiting - the act of waiting - is the key issue. Young people in Shanghai are waiting, moving around the town, amongst friends, waiting for something to happen. These depictions are sympathetic, leaving the viewer with unanswered questions and a sense of wonder. The music in Nowhere, Deaf Land and Blind Sweet, is the artist's own. Liang Yue comments on her films:
"They are not about anything in particular. Nowhere is dedicated to young dreamers. They walk around waiting for something they know nothing about. I don't share their attitude to life. Many young people of my generation are like that. The juxtaposition of the bird and the girl in Deaf Land might give the feeling that both are in a cage, but this is a false feeling. The bird is my deceased grandfather's old bird. It has lived in a cage all it's life, so it doesn't have any feeling about this. It's deaf, just like the girl. I think Deaf Land and Nowhere have an oscillating atmosphere, whilst The Happiest Winter increases, or grows in tempo. This particular video is about something: that it is better to sleep. The two others are not about anything."
The lingering aspect of Liang Yue's work is also to be found in Zhang Peili's Actor's Lines, though in a different form. A sequence from a movie made at the beginning of the 1960's is re-edited and replayed over and over again. The scene shows a soldier from the Peoples Liberation Army and his commissioner just after the conquest of Shanghai in 1949. This is the dialogue with it's repetitions:
A: Why don't you talk? What are you thinking?
B: What a mess in my heart. ././
A: Why don't you talk? What are you thinking? I still remember the day when Shanghai was liberated. Our blood mixed. Our blood mixed. / /
And our hearts were staying with each other and they were close. / /
And our hearts were staying with each other. / /
B: Instructor! / /
This highly tense dramaturgy is examined at close range. It examines outward signals of friendship intermingled with what might be the beginning or continuation of a homoerotic relationship. The way in which the video dwells upon this particular scene carries with it a kind of nostalgia.
Yang Fudong's Flutter, Flutter … Jasmine, Jasmine is a close-up portrait of a young couple in Shanghai who express the thoughts they have about their relationship and it's future. By using three video projections, the couple and the town itself are shown together. The sequences are opulent and calm - they are shown in different constellations, in a subdued, yet sensual rhythm. They describe a well thought out, but new and fragile way of life. The roots of the new way of life are clear, and they focus upon their personal relationship, but also on a desire or wish to "retreat".
Yang Zhenzhong's I will die is also structured around the strategy of repetition. Individuals from various places on the globe look straight into the camera and say in their own language "I will die".
The floating, calm atmosphere in this zone is reminiscent of the long horizons of far-away hills. The works collected here are not organisms, they are accumulations of intensities and of pieces that perhaps carry no meaning in themselves, yet open up for several possible scenarios.
Perhaps it is here that one is most likely to hear the exhibition's refrain?
Andante for Seeking the Peach Blossom Faery
The beauty of the peach blossom is both ancient and legendary. It must have been the work of a good fairy. Perhaps we need that good fairy again? Where is she to be found? How can we search for her? What kind of equipment shall we use?
Shanghai's dramatic and intense tempo of change produces the need for preservation and nostalgia - the need to re-establish links with tradition and the past. The field that is changing most rapidly is perhaps the field of architecture, and here we see the most visible consequences.
This is one of the reasons behind the project created by the Art Institute of Shanghai University Andante for Seeking the Peach Blossom Faery. An established artist, Hue Jie Ming, together with 10 students at the Art Institute, created digital works based upon the architecture of Shanghai and the two villages of Sidi and Hongcun - both on Unesco's cultural heritage list. In addition to the 12 video works, the project consisted of a direct internet-based connection with sound and image, linking the villages with Shanghai Art Museum during the Shanghai Biennale in November 2002. This connection was used for "real time" audio and image communication - so-called "streaming" - between individuals in the villages and those at the exhibition. The ancient belief in the peach blossom fairy became the basis for employing the most advanced communication equipment.
In this exhibition zone the 12 video works are shown together with two new "streaming" projects. The new "streaming" projects are based upon an initiative by the artist Laura Beloff, from the National Academy of Fine Art in Oslo, together with the artist Jin Jiangbo who was also responsible for the "streaming" projects that took place in 2002.
New technology has always had a fairytale aura surrounding it, so connecting ancient beliefs and legends with the most advanced equipment is one method of underlining this magical dimension. In Scandinavia, one age-old legend is that if one digs hard enough and deep enough, one ends up in China. This is the idea behind the project entitled Eye. It consists of two wells - one in Oslo and one in Shanghai - both situated in underground stations. Those passing by have the possibility of communicating with other casual passers-by on the other side of the world. Perhaps somebody will spot a fairy overseeing, or participating in the process?
The second "streaming" project - Airquarium - dramatises global simultaneity. The simultaneous aspects of the old and the new - which is the basis of the Peach Blossom project - is replaced by a staging of simultaneous weather phenomena in different territories. Located in Oslo one is able to "experience the weather" in Shanghai. The simultaneity of the old and the new is commented upon and questioned in the 12 video works on show - from Hue Jie Ming's architectural juxtapositions with musical comments - From Architectural Immanence - through interpretations and conversations, to Wang Kai's reflections upon the old regime of nourishment, entitled Kitchen.
This zone is clearly experimental in character - several of the works are presented as documentaries, and can be viewed by only a few visitors at a time. This zone is a mixture of the private and the public - the old and the new. Like a small town in itself, it is a juxtaposition of small machines belonging to a larger organism - sympathies and antipathies are played out through the individual works.
The Red Flag Flies
Zhou Hongxiang's The Red Flag Flies is like a skyscraper towering over the exhibition landscape. The 25 minutes long video is an exhibition edition of a 70 minute long film. It takes time to immerse oneself in this work. In addition to the length of the video, it has a uniform aspect - many monotonous sequences contribute to the structure - like an enormous building or a mechanical organism. The video employs effective photographical strategies and a split projection surface consisting of two or more image sequences with running commentary. Together, they comprise a series using well-known slogans from recent times. The film shots are surprising, sometimes impartial or matter-of-fact, sometimes humorously staged. The slogans are shouted, and they are all accompanied by a whispered, questioning commentary: "Who shall we welcome?", "What is political power?", "What is big?", "What are the sun and the moon?", "What is China?"... Nothing escapes this relentless questioning. It starts with a quotation by Mao Zedong about art and the role of art, and ends with the questions "What is modern art?" and "What is a film?". Between these two extremities a number of slogans and mottos supporting the attitudes and ideas from social and political arenas have been articulated. Together with some of the individual works from The Long March section of this exhibition, Zhou Hongxiang's work is clearly related to the so-called political pop art movement (1980's and 1990's) from Beijing. Nevertheless, Zhou Hongxiang's matter-of-fact, humorous staging and the relentless round of questions, carries The Red Flag Flies into new territory.
Sudden Swerve, In Loud Crowds I Dream of Hanging Myself, Bai Ta Ling.
Song Tao's video Sudden Swerve is a raw explosion of a film - it portrays an act of unmotivated and transiently absurd rage. In the series of photographs entitled In Loud Crowds I Dream Of Hanging Myself, we see an individual - the artist - imitating suicide by hanging in the background, or periphery of large gatherings of people. The video Bai Ta Ling was made by the same artist. It was conceived of as an (absurd?) information video for an exhibition taking place on the mountain called Bai Ta Ling in the town of Hangzhou. It was planned to be shown in a hole in the ground up on the mountain. The visitors would have to fall into the hole in order to see the video. At an exaggerated tempo, the viewer follows a pair of feet running up steps cut into the mountainside. At the same time we hear a word-play game being recited - the rule being that the last syllable of each word must follow the first syllable of the next. The whole game ends with the name Bai Ta Ling. The accompanying hard rock music and the intense pace of the video is reminiscent of the genre of music videos and animated films from Tokyo.
The intensity of Song Tao's work makes this a spiky, stony landscape. The repulsive aspect of this area is strong - the individual is the central player, yet there are absurd and playful dimensions. Once again there is no organic structure to this zone - the intensity does not convey a concept - it is not referential, neither is it connected to the permanent scheme of things.
The Best Strategy Is To Be On The Move. Seven Intellectuals In The Bamboo Forest, Part 1.
Both works in this zone have obvious references to historical texts. Hu Jie Ming's video The Best Strategy Is To Be On The Move refers to the book "36 Strategies" from the beginning of the 4th Century, by Tan Dao Ji - a book about military strategy and tactics. The 36th strategy gives this work it's title - when one is beaten the best strategy is to escape. The video consists of conjoined scenes showing forced movements of people in contemporary Shanghai together with animations of scenes depicting the Long March which was also an enormous forced military movement.
Yang Fudong's film Seven Intellectuals in The Bamboo Forest, Part 1. is the first of a series of planned films with the same title. The story of the seven intellectuals in the bamboo forest is a well-known story from the 3rd Century. Taoist inspired intellectuals take a stand against the Confucian, intellectual ideal, refusing to adopt their roles as executors of bureaucratic power; it's critics or teachers. Instead, they retreat from the ruling elite, choosing to live in a bamboo forest. Here, they cultivate the arts of discussion, poetry, music, food and drink. The seven intellectuals – or seven wise men – are historical figures within the fields of music, poetry and philosophy.3 One of them, Ji Kang was executed, and one of his ironic aphorisms was this: "Only he who swims with the current, who surrenders and remains silent, will have done nothing he regrets." In Yang Fudong's film we meet seven young people from the Shanghai of today. They are dressed up in costumes from the 1940's – borrowed from the opulent costume wardrobes belonging to the golden days when Shanghai was the home of a burgeoning film industry. The seven characters move slowly, far away from the metropolis, with magnificent landscapes as a backdrop. There is no dialogue, but a voice-over supplies the thoughts each character has about episodes, expectations and attitudes to their own lives. Several aspects of the film link it formally to the classical art of ink painting.
In the exhibition landscape, we once again enter an area of calm, hilly heights. These are not organic works, but accumulations of intensities and possibilities. The question arises again – is this the exhibition refrain?
Which horizons can one expect to see when a number of works of art are gathered together under one concept, referring to a specific geographical, historical and political place?
First of all, let me sketch in a few comments about the most predictable horizons. These are the horizons that one glimpses if one thinks very literally about the perspectives indicated by one of the directions in the exhibition title - the direction of Shanghai. The geographical perspective: for many, a meeting that shows surprising paradoxes in a landscape and a metropolis. The inseparable aspects of an environment – destruction and construction - are nearing a challenging, inspiring, dangerous and new critical phase. The historical perspective: for many, a shocking wake-up-call that shows how the speed and dimensions of historical change are made possible by the resources our planet can now harness. The political perspective: depending upon the beliefs of each viewer, there are arguments for a horizon representing future catastrophe or future freedom.
As individual artworks, each piece in the exhibition contributes to an understanding and summarization of concepts concerning the contexts they have been created within. The contexts that these works focus upon range from personal ethics, through local and imperial Chinese politics, to global aspects that refer to both these and other relationships.
But are there other horizons? What if we view the work from another perspective - the "light as fuck" perspective - from the angle of affect? Doesn't it seem that these artworks - together and separately - not only represent a challenge to the norms that exist in Shanghai, but also for other viewers? Might it not also be the case that they somehow undermine all notions that defend a position of "safety as viewer" with regards to life in general? Do they manage to do this in a way that radically examines - in one way or another - a new simultaneous global pattern of life?
If Light as Fuck! Shanghai Assemblage 2000 - 2004 opens up the possibility of glimpsing such horizons, how might this new global pattern of life be actualized? I have stressed the fact that it is actualized without totality, without a deciding order - nothing is forced, discovered or invented. This is an actualization that requires nothing more of the cosmos than to be present in small glimpses, rather than proposing a regime. This is an actualization where people are constantly confronted by, and simultaneously embrace chaos. Nevertheless, they are not negatively destroyed in this process - instead something positive is created from it.
1 The planned 2003 version of this exhibition included a section that showcased Robert Adam's impressive project Turning Back - a series of photographs focusing upon changes that have taken place in the woods in Oregon. Robert Adams has worked for several years with this project, which will be shown for the first time at MOMA in San Francisco in 2004. Robert Adams lives in Astoria, Oregon. Because of the SARS epidemic in 2003, Shanghai Assemblage has been re-scheduled, and Adam's work has been taken out. Turning Back will also be published in book form in 2004. It will then be possible make a construction of Adam's eminent photographs and the final version of Light as Fuck! Shanghai Assemblage 2000 - 2004 .
3 The seven intellectuals were: Shan Tao (205-283), Ruan Ji (210-263), Ji Kang (223-262), Xiang Xiu (ca. 221-300), Liu Ling (c.225-280), Ruan Xian (234-305) and Wang Rong.
Ed. Per Bjarne Boym, Gu Zhenqing
LIGHT AS FUCK!
Shanghai Assemblage 2000-2004
The National Museum of Art, Norway, 2004